The feeling of inevitability Sunday was surprising. As Tiger Woods was decimating the small field at the Tour Championship to claim his 80th professional victory, ending a five-year winless drought, it felt simultaneously foregone and captivating.
The 42-year-old with the fused spine held off the best players in the world in the prime of their careers, doing what so many said he couldn’t. After four back surgeries, four knee surgeries and off-the-course problems that chipped away at his reputation, Woods completed what could be called the greatest comeback in the history of sport. “I just can’t believe I pulled this off,” an emotional Woods said. “It’s been tough. It’s been not so easy the last couple of years.”
Woods entered Sunday with a three-stroke lead, having torn up the course at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta during a Saturday round 65. By strokes gained, a metric that measures each shot a player takes based on how much it reduces his expected score on a given hole relative to the field average, Woods gained 4.07 total strokes on the field and 2.97 strokes with the putter on Saturday alone. For his career, he had taken a 54-hole lead of at least three strokes 23 times. He had never squandered it. That streak continued.
Seemingly everything in his arsenal came together at exactly the same time.
The putter that failed him so spectacularly at the Dell Technologies Championship was there. So too was the driver that couldn’t find a single fairway on the front nine of the PGA Open final round.
During Woods’s heyday, he dominated the tee box, ranking inside the top 45 in strokes gained off the tee each season for which he qualified from 20041 to 2012, including three top–10 stints. That hasn’t been the case this season. Woods entered the weekend ranked outside the top 100 in strokes gained off the tee and total driving efficiency. But at the Tour Championship, only five players gained more strokes off the tee than Woods’s 0.48.
Woods cut his teeth with clutch play on the green, and he ranked no lower than 32nd in strokes gained with the putter in each season for which he qualified from 2004 to 2012, including four top–10 stints. This season, however, inconsistencies on the green led to club changes four times. But at the Tour Championship, Woods, who was walking in putts with gusto, gained the second-most strokes on the field with the putter (1.28).
Resurgent narrative aside, it wasn’t unfathomable that one of the greatest golfers ever won another event. Woods has put together breathtaking performances throughout this season, indicating that the ability to capture tournaments hasn’t left him just yet. The guy played in 18 official events and finished in the top 10 seven times. Moreover, he’s been dominant in the southeast, where he’s won more than one-fifth of the tournaments he’s played in that region over his career.2 To those who would define his latest victory as a flash in the pan, consider that Woods holds top-40 marks this year in strokes gained tee to green, strokes gained around the green, strokes gained on shots approaching the green, strokes gained with the putter and total strokes gained. Only six players on tour are scoring better, on average.
Tiger will never be the same player he once was; no conditioning or late-night runs to the driving range will return Woods to those prime years. But he’s jumped more than 50 spots in the Official World Golf Rankings in 10 weeks for a reason. And there’s a reason why odds are beginning to tilt in his favor, why he will represent the country at this week’s Ryder Cup.
Everyone loves a comeback.